The Ethics of Emissions Trading

Why do some researchers ethically object to emissions trading?
Image Credit: Megan Sutherland

One of the most widespread strategies aimed at mitigating climate change is emissions trading. Also referred to as cap-and-trade or carbon trading, it has been the subject of much debate, drawing criticism ranging from claims that the resulting changes will be too modest, to claims that the system will result in job losses. Some researchers, however, have taken issue with emissions trading because they view them, at best, as ethically nebulous and, at worst, ethically defunct. Today’s post examines some of the ethical objections to emissions trading.

At its heart, emissions trading is a market-based approach wherein a central authority (usually a government) sells or provides a limited number of permits that allow companies to emit a specified amount of pollution. If a company doesn’t need all its permits, it can sell them to companies who anticipate they will require additional permits, thus creating consequences for polluting and incentives toward reduction. Whether or not the market should be used to solve certain problems, though, is at the heart of much of the ethical debate.

Michael Sandel, a political philosopher and lecturer at Harvard, argues precisely this in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel’s argument is that there are many things which should not be bought and sold, one of them being the right to pollute the environment. Environmental protection, he says, is inherently vested in “civic values” and the introduction of market choices cause a “corrosive effect” to the underlying ethical values they are meant to protect. For Sandel, placing a monetary value on the environment is wholly inappropriate and “undermines the spirit of shared sacrifice that may be necessary to create a global environmental ethic.”1

Other researchers have voiced similar objections, holding that commodification undermines the ethical obligation citizens have to protect the planet by allowing the market to create a space where wealthy countries or businesses can “buy their way out of the duty not to despoil the environment.”2 That is, by treating the atmosphere as a commodity to be sold, businesses and people begin to focus less on the ethical offense of pollution and think of paying for additional permits as “the cost of doing business.”3 Read More…


Spotlight On: “I Can Change Your Mind About…Climate”

Climate change debate took to Australian television at the end of April when a skeptic and a climate change activist debated one another while traveling around Australia, America, and the UK. The hour-long documentary featured Nick Minchin, a former Australian politician, and Anna Rose, a climate change activist and founder of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. The pair traveled by train, plane, and car, all the while discussing their opinions and meeting with experts chosen by Minchin and Rose to represent their respective sides.

After its premier, reaction was mixed and drew some criticism for its funding source (Australian taxpayers) and the estimated amount of carbon the pair used traveling more than 40,000 miles during the course of the four-week taping. Criticism aside, the documentary is certain worth watching, and incidentally includes an appearance by Bjørn Lomborg, who was mentioned in last week’s post. The official, full-length video was unfortunately taken offline this morning, though the video may be available elsewhere. There are, however, several clips of extra footage available on the official Australian ABC1 website.

Scientists and Politicization

Have scientists contributed to the politicization of climate change?
Image Credit: Mark Skrobola

It goes without saying that there is an inherent breach of validity when science is influenced by political opinion. Perhaps less explored is a variant of this, wherein scientists align a scientific outcome with a particular political perspective. According to researcher Roger Pielke, this mode of thinking has increased, whether intentional or not, and has played a role in the politicization of climate change. Pielke has dubbed this “the politicization of science by scientists”1. Today’s post explores some examples of this politicization and why it might be dangerous to science.

In 2001, Bjørn Lomborg published a controversial book called The Skeptical Environmentalist. The book challenges some of the most publicized claims about climate change science, stating that while climate change is real and the IPCC the utmost authority on it, climate change as a whole has been overly dramatized. Lomborg goes on to make policy recommendations about a variety of environmental issues. In the aftermath, Pielke noted that many scientists responded by expressing concern about what this would translate to politically (i.e. who gets elected,who has political influence, etc).

To start, Pielke points at the way climate scientists dismissed TSE‘s climate change chapter due to what Pielke says are “minor differences” in scientific interpretation; the real issue, he says, is Lomborg’s very subjective position that the cost of Kyoto is not worth the benefit. Pielke says that by focusing on small differences in scientific interpretation to debunk Lomborg’s policy opinion, scientists are treating science and policy formulation as a single process with one acceptable outcome. At its core, this way of thinking equates winning the scientific debate with winning a policy debate. Read More…

The Politicization of Climate Change

Why has climate change become a politicized issue?
Image Credit: Fibonacciblue

In the mid-1990s, three sociologists published a paper examining the commonly-held belief that Americans were more polarized about social issues than in the past. While their paper found evidence of polarization in a limited number of issues like abortion, the authors concluded that there was little evidence to support the public perception of a “culture war” occurring. However, more recent data for the late 1990s to early 2000s showed “stronger evidence of polarization.”1 Climate change has somehow found itself deep in the mix of this divide, despite the scientific consensus supporting it. Today’s post explores why climate change came to be a politicized issue.

First and foremost is the issue of ideological difference. American conservative ideology, which champions limited government and the free market, is generally averse to accepting governmental regulations or policies that disrupt industrial capitalism. American liberal ideology, on the other hand, typically promotes collective rights and has been shown to be more “amenable to critiques of the established order” For conservative leaders to readily accept the science of climate change would be to admit regulations as necessary. An admission of this sort would cast some ambiguity into the infallibility of the free market and by extension conservative ideology. Further, such an admission could open up the gauntlet for even more regulations and scrutiny.This made the environmental movement a potential albatross for conservative ideology, and thus it was unsurprising that conservative leaders embraced scientific outliers questioning climate change science.

This tendency to gravitate toward opinions that reinforce previously held ideological understandings is not specific to climate change belief. Researchers theorize Read More…

Governmental Structure and Climate Policy


How does governmental structure affect climate policy and its implementation?
Image Credit: Megan Sutherland

Climate policy is anything but simple, and its implementation can prove even more difficult. In thinking about why some countries have succeeded in implementing green policies and others have struggled, one consideration is the structure of government. Of particular interest is how government structure enables or stymies a country’s ability to address climate change. Today’s post looks at two countries (China and Germany) to see how each country’s institutional framework impacts climate policy.

The Chinese government is often associated with centrally-mandated, authoritarian rule, sometimes envisioned from a distance as a cartoonish and impossibly large fist pounding orders onto the desk of some hapless provincial official. While China does have a hierarchical system, this does not necessarily translate to Beijing as dictator and provincial governments as mere policy implementers. Indeed, some policies, like economic growth, do occupy agendas at every level of government, whereas other policies, like environmental protection, have created underwhelming results that fail to meet central goals.

One of the key impediments in China is the presence of “horizontal” and “vertical” lines of authority. For example, the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), one of the ministries in the central government, oversees each provincial Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, each provincial EPA (considered a “vertical” line of authority), is under the authority of the NEPA and the provincial government in which it resides (considered the “horizontal” authority). The intersection of these two lines of power obviously has the potential for conflict, as provincial authorities frequently have the economic and social/political interests of their province in mind rather than the NEPA’s interests. Adding to this clash is the fact that reforms in the late 70s gave territorial governments priority over “vertical” authority like the EPA.

While this does not mean provincial governments can do as they like, it does mean that ministries like the NEPA “have had their wings clipped” in lower-priority issues. 1 If an issue is high priority, failure to thoroughly implement associated policy can result in firing, fines, etc. China’s birth control policy is one such example where implementation was strict and thorough. The environment, unfortunately, has not yet attained such status, and local authorities have thus far been able to more loosely enforce centrally-mandated policies. Read More…

Spotlight on: Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed

The Island President—A Documentary About Mohamed Nasheed from Sawyer Studios on Vimeo.

Mohamed Nasheed’s story is certainly dramatic: imprisoned and tortured more than 20 times for opposing Maldivian dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an instigator for two rebellions that helped give way to democratic reforms, and eventually the democratically elected president. Just this past February, though, he was forced to resign in a coup led by loyalists of the former dictator.

Political drama aside, Nasheed has continued to make headlines, now with a documentary about his efforts to mitigate climate change. Climate change is a particularly personal issue to Nasheed because the Maldives, an archipelago south of India, has the lowest peak-elevation of any country in the world. In fact, most of the islands are only between 3 and 5 feet above sea level. This makes the country especially susceptible to the rising ocean tides associated with global warming. Dictatorship or democracy, the Maldives are, quite literally, in peril.

Shot between 2009 and 2010 while Nasheed was still president, the movie’s title, The Island President, is a bit of a sad misnomer given February’s events. The movie’s message, though, is Nasheed’s primary concern. In a recent interview with Salon, Nasheed put his opinion on climate change in perspective, saying “We do everything that we do for our children. Why are you working? Why am I working?… We should have policies for our children.” Nasheed went on to say that democratic leaders need to begin thinking more long-term and stop listening to oil companies or naysayers concerned about the next election.  “You might lose power,” he said, “but you are saving your children. We can’t have our policies only go as far as their noses, and the next election.”

After making the rounds at film festivals for the past year,The Island President has amassed very positive reviews. The documentary is now showing in select cities.

Interview with Mohamed Nasheed on

Official website of The Island President

Germany’s Green Revolution

How has Germany become the poster-child for a 'green' economy?
Image Credit: Megan Sutherland

In 2001, the U.S. refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, citing fears of serious economic repercussions. Germany, by far the biggest polluter in Europe at the time, viewed the push for greener policies quite differently. With expensive imports providing most of their energy needs and the desire to be a leader in green technology, pursuing sustainable sources of energy made economic sense. Since then, Germany has emerged as Europe’s ‘green’ poster-child. Today’s post looks at Germany’s ‘green’ revolution and the governmental strategies that have helped put them on top.

Germany’s efforts have primarily focused on two interlinked areas: renewable energy sources and energy conservation. In terms of renewable energy, perhaps the most important mechanism has been the feed-in tariff. A feed-in tariff is a strategy that helps bolster renewable energy, usually by offering long-term contracts to renewable energy companies. However, individual citizens, community groups, small business owners, and farmers, for example, can also receive payment for any energy they produce with green technologies (energy not used by the business, farm, etc is fed into a grid, which others can then use and the producer paid for). With this system, the government eliminates much of the risk associated with the development of new technologies and encourages investors by making renewable sources more attractive. In the first half of 2011, the German Association of Energy and Water Industries reported that almost 21% of Germany’s electricity was generated from renewable sources.1

In terms of energy conservation, the national government has been aggressive with its legislative directives. The Energy Conservation Act of 2009, for example, set new standards for energy efficiency, including regulations on: insulation, use of renewable energy sources in new buildings, and upgrade requirements for already constructed units. The Heat Costs Act of 2009 was also pivotal, increasing the percentage of heating cost based on use.2 Furthermore, the government has begun to heavily tax fuel, which has significantly discouraged use. From a climate perspective, this has seen very positive results: greenhouse gas emissions dropped 18% between 1990 and 2005. The U.S., by contrast, actually increased greenhouse gas emissions by 16% during that same time period.3 Read More…